Battle for world No.2 spot begins with India-South Africa Test

March 25th, 2008 - 4:10 pm ICT by admin  

A file-photo of Harbhajan Singh
By Anand Philar
Chennai, March 25 (IANS) India, riding on their recent superb performances in Australia, will clash with an upbeat South Africa in the first cricket Test here from Wednesday as the battle for the world No.2 spot commences in earnest. Although India lost the four-Test series with Australia 1-2, the tourists gave the hosts a tough fight and went on to clinch the Commonwealth Bank Triangular One-day Series to cap a successful tour.

South Africa, on the other hand, defeated the West Indies and Bangladesh in the last two months to gain confidence ahead of the three-Test series against India.

Significantly, the 2-0 win over a weak Bangladesh came last month and that tour to India’s neighbouring nation has given the Proteas a chance to prepare for the challenging series in India.

Should India win the series, they will climb to the No.2 spot in the International Cricket Council’s (ICC) Test rankings, behind Australia. But at the moment, neither team has even the least interest in the number game.

There has been considerable talk in the days leading up to the first Test at the Chepauk, with players from both teams expressing views on sledging. They are, however, not averse to indulging in a few mind games, as is to be expected while displaying a healthy respect for each other’s individual and collective ability.

Under the circumstances, it is to be expected that the series will not be short on intensity, something that both skippers, Anil Kumble and Graeme Smith, have harped on in the past few days.

The Indians intend to carry forward the strong showing in Australia. And given the home advantage, it is but natural that they fancy their chances against a side that has enjoyed a fair degree of success in the subcontinent. Before demolishing Bangladesh, South Africa had beaten Pakistan 1-0 in October last year and then thrashed New Zealand 2-0 and the West Indies 2-1 at home.

India will be pinning their hopes on a four-man attack to get the 20 wickets. Kumble, who has over 600 wickets under his belt, felt that four specialist bowlers, backed by part timers Sourav Ganguly, Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar, would be more than sufficient given the nature of the pitch.

The South Africans are still undecided on the combination of their playing eleven, though they might be tempted to include left-arm spinner Paul Harris to support their fast bowlers among whom Makhaya Ntini and Dale Steyn would obviously be the spearheads.

The pitch is unlikely to have even a hint of grass and is expected to provide good bounce and carry initially, but is expected to aid spinners as it crumbles.

Kumble said as much Tuesday. “The surface looks good and bouncy, but likely to assist the spinners in the latter half of the Test,” he said.

In the event, the Indians might opt for pacers Rudra Pratap Singh and Sreesanth to handle the new ball, leaving Kumble and Harbhajan Singh to do the spin duty. And as Kumble mentioned, he will also have other options to fall back on.

There has been considerable pre-match speculation about a possible head-on contest between the South African quicks, notably Steyn and the Indian top order batsmen. But, as Sehwag, who is certain to open with Wasim Jaffer, said, it is not as if the South African attack is a mystery to the Indian players.

On his part, Kumble preferred to focus on his team’s strengths than worry about what the South Africans can or cannot do. “We will focus on our strengths and if we play to our potential, then we can deliver a good result,” he said.

The South Africans too boast of a strong line-up with a couple of world-class all-rounders, especially the experienced Jacques Kallis who will have a critical role in the middle-order while chipping in with his tricky seamers.

“We also have a bowling attack that is capable of taking 20 wickets and win a match. So, I guess, we are in with a good chance. Our recent performances in the subcontinent have boosted our confidence and I am pretty hopeful of a good performance in not just the first Test, but the entire series,” said Smith.

In the event, a big first innings total could provide cushion to the team batting first that will help them apply pressure on the opponents who will then have to bat last on a wearing pitch.

Neither Kumble nor Smith were too hot on past records, saying history will not dictate the outcome, but only current form and performance would.

On Wednesday, the toss could play a key role as much as the weather itself that has oscillated from warm and sunny as it was Tuesday to overcast and spells of showers.

The teams:

India: Anil Kumble (captain), Virender Sehwag, Wasim Jaffer, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, V.V.S. Laxman, M.S. Dhoni (wicketkeeper), Harbhajan Singh, Rudra Pratap Singh, Sreesanth, Yuvraj Singh, Irfan Pathan, Murali Karthik and Piyush Chawla

South Africa: Graeme Smith (captain), Neil McKenzie, A.B. de Villiers, Jacques Kallis, Ashwell Prince, Hashim Amla, Robin Peterson, Mark Boucher (wicketkeeper), Morne Morkel, Makhaya Ntini, Dale Steyn, Paul Harris, Ashwell Prince, Charles Langeveldt, Jean-Paul Duminy and Monde Zondeki

Umpires: Asad Rauf (Pakistan) and Tony Hill (New Zealand)

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